County ready to bar home construction in areas where schools are crowded School officials believe limits should be lower

June 30, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The Gary administration is poised to begin barring new subdivisions in communities where elementary schools are 15 percent over rated capacity and secondary schools are 20 percent over capacity.

The policy change, in the works since last fall, is in conflict with the beliefs of most school board members, who wanted the cap at 100 percent but failed to present a full counterproposal by the administration's June 30 deadline.

County officials said this is the first time limits have been set on waivers, which allow developers to build where schools are full. But board members protested that exceeding 100 percent invites school crowding and circumvents an ordinance designed curb construction where schools and roads cannot take the burden.

The long-standing practice of granting waivers permits developers to pay toward upgrading schools to avoid a construction delay. Between 1988 and 1994, waivers have added about 670 children to county schools, which have an enrollment of about 71,800, according to a panel created by the County Council. Nevertheless, waivers have become an explosive issue where schools are crowded.

Last fall, County Executive John G. Gary said he wanted the school system to go along with his changes.

"And if they don't go along with them, we're going to adopt them anyway," he said then.

School board President Joseph H. Foster said the board lacked information it needed -- plus time to discuss it -- in an orderly way.

"I don't understand what the urgency is, what the benefit of crowding schools gains," said Foster. "Let's face it, 100 percent is 100 percent."

He said these changes could complicate redistricting and add to transportation costs.

"If the parents and the taxpayers are unhappy, then they need to voice that concern to them -- to the elected officials. We will try to do things like redistricting, but there is a limit to how effective that can be," Foster said.

Gary's plan is similar to that in some other counties.

If a school is at 100 percent of capacity and no new schools or additions are under construction, someone proposing a new subdivision could include a new school in their plans, add onto the existing one, or pay fees toward an addition.

But, if a developer wants to build where an elementary school already is at 115 percent capacity or a secondary school is at 120 percent, county planners can take into consideration whether there is room at a nearby school. If those are at 115 and 120 percent, the proposed subdivision is blocked and the developer goes on a waiting list. But if they are not, the new project could win the waiver, though the developer would have to either build a new school or addition, or pay fees toward construction.

This would force the thorny and emotional issue of redistricting on the school board, which could choose to shift students. The county government, by state law, does not have the power to redistrict. The administration also is looking into legislation that would permit "some type of potential assessment" for building homes on lots that received county approval before 1978, said Steven R. Cover, director of Planning and Code Enforcement. These "infill" lots predate the county's ordinance on adequate school and road facilities, and pay no fees.

But he did not know what kind of legislation would be considered or how many lots it would affect.

The county has 14,571 undeveloped lots that are approved for homes, said PACE spokesman John Morris.

Foster said the school board was working on a counterproposal to the administration that limits school capacity to 100 percent.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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